Archive for the ‘Theorists, Critics, and Pundits’ Category

Aristotle on The Office (UK)

November 18, 2009

In the Poetics Aristotle writes, “Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type – not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.” In the same way, the characters of The Office (UK) are not bad, but rather their “ugliness” channels the comedic nature of the show. Office manager David Brent’s (Ricky Gervais) ugliness is ugliness of character; the fact that David Brent believes himself to be this amazing example of utopian management skills, but is actually neither a good manager nor a funny one, is the comedic premise of the show.

However, I think that one can say the comic mask of The Office is in its distortion of documentary and reality TV style. The Office is a scripted comedy, and yet within its diegetic universe the characters recognize and even address the cameras that are filming them. Also, and completely within the flow of the narrative, there are interviews/confessionals with the characters in which they vent or discuss situations in the office, usually beginning with a rephrasing of a question that was ostensibly asked by the film crew. I propose that this style – mockumentary – and its subsequent breakdown of the fourth wall between audience and cast, is what allows the viewer to enter into The Office’s diegetic universe and fully perceive its comedic value.

The value of The Office lies in its comedy rather than in displaying some form of utopian ideal. Christine Geraghty’s use of Dyer’s proposal that “entertainment functions by offering the image of ‘something better’ to escape into” (Soap Opera and Utopia, pg 2) does not mesh with The Office. Rather, it might be better to say that soap operas and certain other dramatic narratives function as a vehicle for the presentation of utopian ideals. But that comedy, as defined by Aristotle and seen in The Office does the opposite. The Office does not present a utopian ideal of office life. The audience doesn’t long to escape into life at the Slough, Berkshire office of the Wernham Hogg Paper Company but rather rejoices and laughs at the fact they don’t work there and will never have to. The meta-mimesis in The Office is what makes us reflexively appreciate our own, real working environments. Through imitation of all that can possibly go wrong in an office, including in that the filming of office life, The Office is endearing in its distopia-ness. However, the real reason we love it is because we don’t have to live it.


In Defense of the Dancing Bear

November 17, 2009

When I first watched the BBC2 series, The Office, I was struck by how dull it was. The story was very non-narrative, the characters (for the most part) unlikable and I simply didn’t get the show’s comedic elements. I had a change of heart, however, when in my African Cinema class we screened Sissako’s 1999 film, Life On Earth. These two may at first seem non-related, but I can explain… Sissako’s film is an exemplar of post-modern minimalism in African cinema; the story is non-narrative, the characters are unimportant, the cinematography relies on long takes,  drawn out shots and silence. Much of what I disliked in The Office I ended up defending in Sissako’s film. I found myself compelled by the film and saw its entertainment-less as fundamental and necessary to its totality. Though I don’t consider Life On Earth to have much in the way of typical entertainment value, it has value nonetheless. Perhaps Adorno’s negative dialectics explain why Sissako’s films, in refusing me the cheap thrills I’m used to at the movies, asserts itself against the mainstream and has a claim at being ‘art’. My defense of Life On Earth made me reflect on my distaste for The Office. Why do I see minimalism in film as compelling and interesting when I find it dull in a television series? This caused a minor existential crisis, I can’t be biased against TV, I love TV. This caused even more of a tizzy when I watched the NBC version of The Office and found it to be funnier and more enjoyable then its UK double. A much more linear and narrative plot drives the American version of “Branch Closing,” which has a very similar story to the pilot of the UK series. Its characters are more compelling and fleshed out and the slapstick, absurdist comedy is something I can recognize as funny. It would seem that I have defined sitcoms in my mind as something that is definitively non-artistic, as something that must necessarily entertain me.
In the beginning of Sissako’s film the non-diegetic voice of the narrator says, “I am not your dancing bear,” I accept that this film is not going to ‘dance’ for me, it demands my attention and reflection and refuses to spoon feed me ‘pre-digested’ entertainment. Perhaps that is what The Office (UK) demands of me. As a comedic sitcom I expect pure, easy laughs from the show, but The Office’s humor and much of its unique value comes from its break with and reflection on what I define as a ‘sitcom,’ with what I consider funny TV. Like many post-modern artworks the show focuses on what is typically considered mundane, the daily routine is turned into something of interest and worth. The UK show also incorporates many non-linear sub-stories in every episode that aren’t necessarily related to the main story line, something characteristic of minimalist films. The shift away from the individual is also very emblematic of post-modernism; though Gervais is clearly the main character it is not in the same way that Mary Tyler Moore is a main character. The focus is on the ensemble, on the office as a whole, there are plots that don’t revolve or even incorporate Gervais.
Television, as an art form, is on shaky ground. As we discussed in this class and in Theorizing Popular Culture, there is something of a stigma that surrounds television. Perhaps its lack of critical discourse is due to its lack of a critical language, just as Frith said of music, or perhaps its shear elitism. While dramatic series like Twin Peaks and The Sopranos have found positive feedback and are, by many, considered to have artistic merit the comedy is still our dancing bear. Shows like The Office, particularly the UK version although radical elements still remain in the NBC remake, demonstrate the artistic potential that the form has.

How the Visual Elements of Breaking Bad Provide Both a “Real” and “Stereotypical” Portrayal of Meth Addiction

November 3, 2009

According to Adorno, television viewers are “shrewder in their demands for perfection of technique and for reliability of information” (161). Breaking Bad uses visual techniques to try to portray the lives of drug dealers “realistically,” thereby the show’s content is considered reliable. The seedy lifestyle of meth dealing is portrayed in such a way that viewers already associate with drugs (perhaps this is a stereotype, though, which is an issue that Adorno addresses). Though the aesthetic choices are interesting (more severe lighting, shaky cameras etc.), these visual choices confirm the elements of chaos and baseness that we already assign to drug dealing. The “realism,” though, mostly stems from the unstable camerawork and the notion that we are seeing everything from Walt’s perspective and therefore can see things more accurately.

The ways in which the characters are portrayed also aim to give reliable insight into this sordid world. Though Jesse appears to be young, well-dressed, and comparably healthy, characters like Spooge and his wife are portrayed as the ultimate meth addicts: sickly, dirty, and emaciated. They have a child that they cannot provide for and they live in a disgusting and dangerous home. Seeing a child living in squalor (dirty, hungry, and watching the home-shopping network) may be a bit cliché but it serves to show the consequences of meth use. Spooge and his family serve to reveal the implications of immersing oneself in this world. On the other hand, there is Jesse who is, compared to Spooge, merely dipping his toes into this world. Then there is Walt, who seems to be on the borderline between his family world and his drug world. All of these characters, though, are heading down a bad path, some just faster than others. Adorno says, “Some of the stereotypical messages…may prove to be quite legitimate. However, it may be said with fairness that the questionable blessings of morals…are largely over-shadowed by the threat of inducing people to mechanical simplifications by distorting the world in such a way that it seems to fit into pre-established pigeonholes” (172). Through the visual elements of the show, we see the overt message, or moral, that immersing oneself into the world of meth proves to be dangerous and destructive.

Newton Minow’s Wasteland Speech (1961)

October 29, 2009

“But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.” Read more